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  Belief (from old English belyfan, ‘to hold dear’) takes us into one of the largest and darkest areas of human thought. Belief is a function of thought; without rationality, without the abilities to create, learn and remember mental constructs, and to relate one\'s life-experience to them, it is impossible to believe.

Belief is the direct mirror image of knowledge. To know something is to have experienced proof of it; to believe something is to sidestep the need for proof. To know that black is white would be a very different thing from believing that black is white. And yet believers consistently behave as if what they have is knowledge, and claim their belief as such. This is the case in matters both great and small, but is particularly so in our attitude to the supernatural. If one believes in the existence of supernatural beings, the next stage is to make that belief into a faith (belief with imperatives for action), and the step after that is to claim that proofs exist (miracles, personal revelations and so on). A scientist can prove the existence of, say, black-body radiation or ripples in space—the process of proof may be laborious, but the end result is sure knowledge which the outsider is bound to accept. In the same way, religious believers down the ages have offered laborious and meticulous proofs—but here, in the final analysis, the outsider must share the revelation, accept the irrational, in order to share the belief. I do not need to believe in the existence of black-body radiation to know that it exists; I do need to believe in God to know that He exists. In the same way, unless I am a fool or a charlatan, disproof will change what I know; someone else\'s disbelief, by contrast, will have no effect at all on what I believe.

In rational thought, proof is an objective correlative against which to measure our ideas. In belief, the correlative is subjective and fanciful. Nonetheless, we take it just as seriously as, if not more seriously than, the proofs in an objective argument. In each case, it is as if we sidestep final responsibility for our ideas, or for our behaviour based on those ideas. For instance, I am, finally, not prepared to take responsibility for the systematic oppression of people of another skin-colour simply on the grounds that I feel like it; therefore I create a (sincere) belief-system to which I can appeal for justification, and which acts as a kind of intellectual scapegoat for my behaviour. I cannot personally guarantee happiness in a future life to those who share my ideas and way of life, but I can predicate (sincerely) a belief-system which offers it.

If we put it thus baldly, we are reducing human belief to playground level. Believers might make two arguments against such reductionism. First is the phenomenon of shared belief. There are certain unprovable ideas—for example the existence and nature of supernatural beings—which are universally shared by the human race, and have been so shared as far back as we can trace human consciousness. Is this a kind of mass delusion, a state (precisely) of mind, or is it as believers claim proof in itself that what is believed is true? Second is the intellectual ingenuity of the human species. Belief of one kind or another has led, and leads, to some of the most magnificent edifices of human creation, both intellectual and actual. They are one aspect, a major aspect, of our species\' uniqueness and (we like to think) its glory. No other creatures write symphonies, create welfare states, believe in God. That being so, the argument continues, belief is not just something we have but is something we are. It is inherent to the human brain; it is an objective quality; one day, when we have developed enough reasoning skill, we will discover the proof that our belief is true, and instead of believing we will know. KMcL



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